Last Thursday, the Miami Dolphins had to rewrite their season outlook when quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a non-contact injury during practice. By Sunday, the Dolphins had signed Jay Cutler out of retirement and Tannehill's season looks perilously close to being over -- even if he was healthy later in the year, it's still Cutler's job to lose. If Tannehill does end up getting starts later in the year, will he be effective?
Like him or not, Tannehill helped Miami make the playoffs last season. He may end up as the most notable preseason or training camp injury of 2017, but there have been plenty others over the last two decades. Tannehill's injury could also end up fairly meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but as you can see with the biggest preseason injuries of the past 20 years, these moments can change the course of NFL history.
With the continued examination of safety issues in the NFL and the number of preseason games under scrutiny, it's also worth noting in what context these injuries occurred. As you can see below, the most impactful ones over the past two decades have been almost evenly divided between practices and preseason games. Does this mean that there would be fewer injuries overall if preseason games were cut down? Or would that simply mean that there would be an uptick in more practice-related ailments? Either way, no team is safe from a potentially devastating blow.
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys, Aug. 27, 2016 (preseason game)
A broken bone in Romo's back suffered in a preseason game against the Seahawks last season didn't have to end his season prematurely … but Dak Prescott made sure that it did anyway. Cliff Avril sacked Romo less than two minutes into the game, and the injury kept Romo out for about half the year, with Dak's record-setting rookie campaign stifling his return. Romo, 37, came in for four attempts in the finale and so far has stuck to his plans to retire and become FOX's lead NFL analyst.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings, Aug. 30, 2016 (practice)
Bridgewater's case is unique in that it didn't happen in a game, nor did it happen from absorbing any contact, and it is also among the most devastating of any player on this list. A dislocated knee and torn ACL ended his 2016 season and could very well keep him out of action this season as well. It's fair to wonder if Bridgewater, a promising 23-year-old QB in 2015, will ever be an effective starter in the league again -- and it all mysteriously happened before the season.
Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers, Aug. 23, 2015 (preseason game)
Despite a couple of snubs prior to 2014, that was the first time that Nelson had made the Pro Bowl; he finished with 98 catches, 1,519 yards, 13 touchdowns, and was considered to be perhaps the most productive receiver going into '15. Unfortunately, that never happened as Nelson tore his ACL in a preseason game against the Steelers and who knew how good he'd be when he returned. Answer: 97 catches and 1,257 yards, with an NFL-high 14 touchdowns.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers, Aug. 19, 2015 (practice)
It's most devastating to miss your rookie season, but missing the follow-up campaign is still pretty bad. Benjamin joined a short list of rookies to top 1,000 receiving yards in 2014 but tore his ACL in an August practice two years ago and was out for the year. He returned last season to put up 14.9 yards per catch and seven touchdowns in a struggling Carolina offense, but his progress seemed stunted.
Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams, Aug. 24, 2014 (preseason game)
When Bridgewater's knee got decimated last year, the Vikings made a trade for Bradford, who ironically suffered his own devastating preseason injury just two years earlier. On the first drive in a game against the Browns, Bradford had his left leg rolled on, tearing his ACL and ending his 2014 campaign before it started. Bradford had missed nine games in 2013 and the promise he had shown as a young No. 1 overall pick all but disappeared. He led the NFL in completion percentage last season, but only because of how short his pass attempt are in Minnesota. That being said, he's at least remained healthy for the last two years.
Darnell Dockett, DT, Arizona Cardinals, Aug. 18, 2014 (practice)
Dockett was 33 when he tore his ACL in practice in 2014, but he was still a highly-productive defensive tackle going into the season; he had 46 tackles and 4.5 sacks with Arizona the year prior and had missed just two career games. Dockett never played again and officially retired in July of 2016.
Bryan Bulaga, OT, Green Bay Packers, Aug. 5, 2013 (practice)
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles, July 30, 2013 (practice)
Maclin didn't even make it to August in 2013. The receiver was looking to cash in during a contract year, but instead he was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL and then signed a one-year deal to return to Philly in 2014. Maclin went to his first Pro Bowl that season and signed a long-term deal with the Chiefs, which they ended prematurely after only two years this past June.
Austin Collie, WR, Indianapolis Colts, Aug. 19, 2012 (preseason game)
Collie never became an NFL star, but believe it or not, there was a time when he was seen perhaps as a better Colts prospect than Pierre Garcon. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Collie caught 15 touchdowns over his first two seasons, before Peyton Manning's neck injury caused everyone in Indy to look terrible in '11. Going into the 2012 season with Andrew Luck, Collie had an opportunity to re-emerge, but concussion issues forced him to miss virtually the entire year. He attempted a comeback with the Patriots, but nothing much came of it.
Desmond Bishop, LB, Green Bay Packers, Aug. 10, 2012 (preseason game)
Bishop was also not really a "star player" in 2012, but he could have become that after the promise he showed in 2011, recording 115 tackles and five sacks in only 13 games. Bishop tore his hamstring in a preseason game and missed the season. Still only 29, Bishop signed a one-year deal with the Vikings, but he ended up playing in only six more games over the rest of his career.
Mikel Leshoure, RB, Detroit Lions, Aug. 8, 2011 (practice)
Who knows what this former second round pick could've done in the NFL if not for a devastating injury early on in his first preseason. During 11-on-11 drills, teammate Cliff Avril (second mention on this list) drilled him and Leshoure tore his Achilles. He came back for 215 carries, 798 yards, and nine touchdowns in 2012, but he had just two more rush attempts over the rest of his career.
Elvis Dumervil, DE, Denver Broncos, Aug. 5, 2010 (practice)
In 2009, Dumervil broke out for a league-high 17 sacks and was named as a first-team All-Pro. He then signed a five-year, $58.3 million deal, including $43.1 million guaranteed for injuries -- a record sum at the time. His first major injury occurred only a few months later, when Dumervil tore a pectoral muscle in practice and was placed on IR.
Jammal Brown, OT, New Orleans Saints, Aug. 20, 2009 (practice)
Brown was a high draft pick and a two-time Pro Bowler, the man responsible for protecting future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. In that context, things certainly seemed dire when Brown had hernia surgery in 2009, effectively ending his season before it started. The team placed Jermon Bushrod in his place and went on to win the Super Bowl that year -- Brees obviously didn't miss a step. Brown signed with Washington in the offseason, posting a few decent seasons before his career came to an end in 2013. Bushrod made two Pro Bowls as New Orleans' new left tackle.
Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants, Aug. 24, 2008 (preseason game)
The biggest injury of 2008 -- and perhaps the biggest injury news in NFL history -- came just a handful of snaps into the regular season: Tom Brady tore his ACL. However, before the season started, the biggest injury happened on the Giants, the team that defeated Brady in the previous Super Bowl.
Umenyiora tore the meniscus in his left knee in the preseason and was placed on injured reserve. The two-time Pro Bowler had 13 sacks the previous season and 14.5 sacks two seasons prior, but he missed all of 2008. He never made it back to the Pro Bowl, but he did help New York defeat Brady in the Super Bowl again in '11.
LeCharles Bentley, C, Cleveland Browns, July 27, 2006 (practice)
The Browns finally thought they were heading in the right direction with signings like that of Bentley, a two-time Pro Bowler and Cleveland native who signed for six years, $36 million, but fate intervened with a torn patellar tendon. Bentley was only 27 at the time, but he never played in the NFL again.
Michael Vick, QB, Atlanta Falcons, Aug. 17, 2003 (preseason game)
The opening sentence from the SI story at the time put it best:
"Michael Vick's broken leg on a meaningless scramble in a preseason game knocks the wind out of the Falcons and robs the NFL of its brightest star."
That's certainly how it felt at the time. Vick, the top overall pick and the most unique quarterback of his -- perhaps any -- era, had led Atlanta to a playoff win in 2002, just two seasons after going 4-12. His broken leg kept him out of 10 games, in which the Falcons went 2-10 with Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner. The following season, Atlanta went 11-5 with Vick and reached the NFC Championship. There are a lot of "What if's" with Vick's career.
Jamal Lewis, RB, Baltimore Ravens, Aug. 8, 2001 (practice)
This is another case of extremely bad timing. Not that there's ever good timing to tear your ACL, but Lewis, like a number of players on this list, seemed to be tapping into his potential only to be robbed of a season. As a rookie, Lewis had 1,364 rushing yards and Baltimore won the Super Bowl. Then Lewis tore his ACL during an August practice, his second such injury in four years. The Ravens dropped from eighth in yards per carry to 25th, getting knocked out during the second round of the playoffs.
Ryan Leaf, QB, San Diego Chargers, July 13, 1999 (practice)
He may be one of the worst players in NFL history, but I think it's worth mentioning something that never gets mentioned: Leaf missed his entire second season with a labral tear. His rookie campaign was still historically awful (45.3% completions, two touchdowns, 15 interceptions) but things could've been slightly different if he didn't injure his shoulder just 30 minutes into his second training camp.
Trent Green, QB, St. Louis Rams, Aug. 28, 1999 (preseason game)
The lead driver of the most famous offense in NFL history can trace his greatest opportunity to this date, a preseason contest between the Rams and Chargers. That was the day that Green, who signed a four-year free agent contract in the offseason to be St. Louis' starter, saw his season come to a premature end thanks to a hit to the knee by Rodney Harrison. In stepped Kurt Warner, the 1999 MVP as the Rams won their first Super Bowl. Green replaced Warner for five games in 2000, throwing 16 touchdowns and five interceptions and we'll never know what could have been if not for that injury.
Jason Sehorn, CB, New York Giants, Aug. 21, 1998 (preseason game)
Only five players had more interceptions than Sehorn (11) over the 1996-1997 seasons. The promising Giants went 10-5-1 in '97, allowing the fewest passing yards and touchdowns in the NFL. Then Sehorn tore his ACL and MCL in a '98 preseason game, and New York dropped to 13th in passing yards allowed and went just 8-8. He returned to play five more seasons, and made a Super Bowl appearance in 2000, but was never quite the same.
Nine of these injuries happened during game action, which you would expect. But it's fascinating that 11 of these major mostly-season-ending, some-career-threatening incidents happened in a practice. Be careful out there.